ACC looks to end Final Four drought

Six ACC schools earned invitations to this year’s NCAA Tournament — providing the league multiple opportunities to return to the Final Four after a five-year absence. Surprisingly enough, no ACC school has reached the Final Four since North Carolina and Duke won back-to-back national championships in 2009 and 2010.

The Blue Devils earned the No. 1 seed in the South Region of this year’s Big Dance, playing the opening weekend in Charlotte. The Blue Devils became the first school since Connecticut and Pittsburgh in 2009 to earn a top seed despite not winning either its regular season or conference tournament. Clearly the NCAA selection committee weighed Duke’s 29-4 record, which included key victories over the likes of Wisconsin, Virginia, Michigan State, North Carolina, NC State, and other NCAA teams such as St. John’s and Wofford, heavily in its decision to make the Blue Devils a No. 1 seed over Virginia.

Despite its narrow setback to ACC Tournament champion Notre Dame in the semifinal round, Duke is poised to seriously contend for a national championship in the coming weeks. The Blue Devils hadn’t lost since late January prior to the loss to the Fighting Irish and longtime Mike Krzyzewski assistant Mike Brey. Many believe that Duke has the easiest path to Indianapolis, with Gonzaga standing as the No. 2 seed in the South Region, Iowa State the No. 3 seed, and Georgetown the No. 4 seed.

Virginia earned the No. 2 seed in the East Region, and will also play out of Charlotte in its first two games.

UVa lost two out of its last three games — close setbacks against Louisville in the regular season finale and North Carolina in the ACC Tournament semifinals — to fall behind Wisconsin in the seeding. The Badgers earned the No. 1 seed in the West Region. Despite the snub of not getting a No. 1 seed, the Cavaliers have a fairly favorable draw, including a chance for redemption against Michigan State — the team that eliminated the Cavaliers from the 2014 NCAA Tournament — in a possible second round matchup.

Fresh off its first-ever conference tournament championship in any league, Notre Dame moved all the way up to the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region. Playing out of Pittsburgh, the Fighting Irish drew Northeastern in the opening round, and a possible matchup with Butler in the second round. Few teams in America are playing as well as Mike Brey’s squad heading into the NCAA Tournament. And though they’re in a loaded bracket with the likes of Kentucky, Kansas, and Maryland, the Fighting Irish have the firepower to make plenty of noise in that region.

Louisville and NC State join Virginia in the East Region, with the Cardinals claiming the No. 4 seed, and the Wolfpack the No. 8 seed. U of L takes on UC-Irvine in its opening contest in Seattle, while NC State takes on Louisville in Pittsburgh. Should the Cardinals and Wolfpack advance to the Sweet 16 in Syracuse, they would meet each other in the regional quarterfinals. NC State would likely have to take down top-seeded Villanova for that to happen, while Louisville would have to beat either Northern Iowa or Wyoming in the Round of 32.

North Carolina drew the No. 4 seed in the West Region, and a matchup with Ivy League champion Harvard in the opening round. The Tar Heels, who defeated Louisville and Virginia on its way to a surprising berth in the ACC Tournament championship, seem to be improving at just the right time. UNC would draw either Arkansas or Wofford in its second game, with a possible matchup with top-seeded Wisconsin awaiting in the Sweet Sixteen.

Miami was left out of the fun, as the Hurricanes were penalized for a weak non-conference schedule, a lack of quality wins compared to some other bubble teams, and an exit in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. The disappointing part from the ACC’s perspective was to see the Hurricanes lose out to schools such as Texas and UCLA, which arguably bring more prestige and money to the Big Dance, but not necessarily the resume that the Canes had.

Either way, this could very well be the year that the ACC breaks its Final Four slump. The Blue Devils and Cavaliers are well-positioned for potential runs to Indianapolis, with reasonably favorable draws and fan-friendly venues to play in such as Charlotte and in Virginia’s case Syracuse should they reach the Sweet Sixteen.

Others, such as North Carolina and Notre Dame, will likely have to beat multiple higher-seeded teams to reach the Final Four, but the Fighting Irish and Tar Heels showed at the ACC Tournament that they could have a possible run in them as well. Louisville and NC State certainly can’t be discounted either, given that they played two of the nation’s toughest schedules, and they beat some of the top teams such as Duke and Virginia during the season.

It all makes for a thrilling and exciting three weeks — the pinnacle of the college basketball season. March Madness is here!